The Toronto Maple Leafs won't win the Stanley Cup this season, but they'll be an interesting team to watch.
Brian Burke wouldn't have it any other way.
The team's general manager took a look at the non-playoff roster he was handed when he took the job early last season, and quickly surmised he needed to make it Anaheim East as fast as possible. In other words, even if the Leafs don't win every game, they'll certainly leave a mark.
Burke rode the hard-nosed approach all the way to a Stanley Cup in Anaheim in 2007, thus proving a team in the Pacific Time Zone could put all the travel challenges aside and run the table. It didn't hurt that the Ducks took the mighty out of their name, put it on the ice and ran everyone else out of the building.
What Anaheim had and Burke's current reclamation project in Toronto is missing is the top-end skill. The Maple Leafs don't have a Ryan Getzlaf(notes), a Corey Perry(notes) or a Teemu Selanne(notes). They don't have an elite defenseman like Scott Niedermayer(notes) and they're not exactly sure what they have in goal. Vesa Toskala(notes) performed well with a decent supporting cast in San Jose, but his play in Toronto thus far can't fairly be judged until the Leafs play better around him.
So the personality transformation begins, and it's written all over the personnel Burke brought in. The biggest change is on defense where newcomers Mike Komisarek(notes), Francois Beauchemin(notes) and Garnet Exelby(notes) will spearhead a defense than plans to spend less time in its own end than last year, and figures to deal out the punishment when push comes to shove.
Burke's ability to turn a deal with Boston and acquire previously unsigned restricted free agent Phil Kessel(notes) is a start, but the Leafs are definitely lacking in terms of offensive explosiveness in the forward group. In fact, coach Ron Wilson will be challenged to determine exactly who should fill what role.
The Burke-Wilson connection is an interesting one, too. The best of friends dating back decades when the two were teammates at Providence College, Burke and Wilson are working together as GM and coach for the first time in the NHL. Wilson was hired by the previous regime, and anyone who thinks this could be a marriage made is heaven is dead wrong.
While the two share a strong bond, they don't see eye-to-eye with regards to how the game should be played. Burke favors toughness and fighting where Wilson has gone on the record in the past saying the fisticuffs should be legislated out of the game.
Wilson is going to be expected to follow Burke's blueprint, and it's assumed he will. But Wilson has never been shy to voice his opinion and act accordingly. If things aren't going as well as Burke planned, Wilson's decisions could get scrutinized – in Toronto, ya think? – and we'll see if these two really can work well together.
Last season: 34-35-13 (81 points). Fifth place Northeast Division, 12th place in the Eastern Conference and 24th in the overall standings. The Leafs missed the playoffs for a franchise-high fourth straight season, something that didn't get as much play as you might expect from a team that's been around since 1917. They won't get a free pass if they miss again this season, however.
Imports: RW Phil Kessel (Boston), D Mike Komisarek (Montreal), D Francois Beauchemin (Anaheim), D Garnet Exelby (Atlanta), C Wayne Primeau(notes) (Calgary), G Joey MacDonald(notes) (N.Y. Islanders), G Jonas Gustavsson(notes) (Sweden), RW Colton Orr(notes) (N.Y. Rangers) and C Tim Brent(notes) (Chicago).
Exports: D Pavel Kubina(notes) (Atlanta), C Kris Newbury(notes) (Detroit), RW Jeremy Williams(notes) (Detroit), G Justin Pogge(notes) (Anaheim), C Jeff Hamilton(notes) (Europe), D Jaime Sifers(notes) (Minnesota) and G Olaf Kolzig(notes) (retired).
Salary cap: Recently adding Phil Kessel's $5.4 million salary pushed the Maple Leafs to within one minimum-salaried contract ($500,000) of the cap's ceiling. Brian Burke should feel right at home now considering he was always dangling precariously at the top of the cap while running Anaheim's books, too. A good chunk of the money goes to six defensemen – Mike Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle(notes), Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger(notes), Luke Schenn(notes) and Mike Van Ryn(notes) all will earn between $2.9-$4.5 million this season.
Three keys: The Leafs are offensively challenged and Burke knew he had take a chance. Everyone should realize that acquiring disgruntled young forward Phil Kessel from Boston is just that – a gamble.
Kessel won't be ready to play before mid-November as he continues to rehabilitate from late-May surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his left shoulder. The other hurdle the near 22-year-old young star must clear is his reputation in Boston for being immature and not the greatest teammate.
The best way for Kessel to put the awkward Boston breakup behind him is to win over the Toronto fan base and help lead the Maple Leafs back to respectability. He's clearly the most talented forward on the roster, so he has a lot of responsibility and expectations that come with that status.
Second, Toskala has to regain the consistency he displayed in San Jose. Toskala's numbers last season were just terrible – 3.26 goals-against average and .891 save percentage, both career lows – and it's amazing he won 22 of 39 decisions. He fought through injury last season, but eventually went under the knife to repair hip and groin problems.
By the looks of the preseason workload, Toskala will get backup help from 29-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald and not well-chronicled offseason signing Jonas Gustavsson, the 24-year-old Swedish prospect who comes with a big reputation. The smartest thing for the Leafs would be to have him spend a season in the minors to get used to the North American rink dimensions, and the pro game here, before being in position to win a job late in the year or next season.
Third, the Leafs need some young blood to emerge, weather it's a Viktor Stalberg, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak(notes) or someone else who comes out of nowhere to make it impossible for the Leafs to cut them after the preseason.
On the hot seat: Ron Wilson had an easy ride last season. Everyone in Leafs Nation – even the most over-the-top unrealistic Toronto faithful – knew this was a non-playoff team, thus making it the first time in team history the Leafs would miss the Stanley Cup playoffs four straight seasons.
But the honeymoon is over. Wilson has been handed half a playoff team – good enough, on paper anyway, in goal and on defense to finish among the top eight. But does Wilson really have enough offense for the team to pass both Ottawa and Buffalo in the standings, which is what it'll take to get into a playoff spot? This much is known: Either Wilson overcomes the handicap or he could be held accountable, whether it's right or wrong, fair or not.
Poised to blossom: Niklas Hagman(notes) isn't the typical player who might fill this category. He's not particularly young at age 29, or early in his career – he's played nearly 550 career games over seven NHL seasons – and Toronto is his third stop already.
But considering the Maple Leafs' need for offense, Hagman is the kind of player who is going to get the benefit of the doubt for extra ice time, especially considering the Finnish winger is not a liability on defense and is coming off back-to-back 20-goal seasons, the first two times he scored that many in an NHL season.
Time has passed: Jason Blake(notes) is true heart-and-soul warrior, and his role is an important one on this team, but at age 36 you have to wonder if he can come close to the numbers he produced on a bad team last year – 25 goals, 63 points – when he probably won't be getting 18 minutes per night.
Prediction: The Leafs will be a pain to play, that is guaranteed. Injuries could really hurt this team's depth, especially on the forward line. Overall, they might have enough to move to third in the division, but that would still put them in fight for eighth in the East. It says here they contend, but eventually fall a few points short.
- Brian Burke
- Phil Kessel
- Maple Leafs